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US Senate review may delay mad-cow tracing plan

Written by: Staff
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WASHINGTON, Mar 17 (Reuters) A Senate panel overhauling US farm policy next year will evaluate a cattle identification system being developed to fight mad cow disease, a step that may slow the system's implementation, the panel's chairman said.

''This is an issue that we're going to deal with in the farm bill,'' said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. ''It is an alternative to country-of-origin labeling.'' Asked if a 2007 review might delay the system, due to be fully operational in 2009, Chambliss said, ''Later is better than doing it early and not doing it right.'' The cattle traceback system is in its early stages of implementation. It would allow officials to identify the home farm and herdmates of suspect animals within 48 hours of a disease outbreak.

When the first US case of mad cow disease was discovered in December 2003, the Bush administration said it would speed up development of the traceback system.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told reporters at a news conference yesterday, ''We do not want it slowed.'' The program would be fully operational in 2009 under current timetables.

Separately, Johanns said the Agriculture Department would hand to Japan ''sometime in the next few days'' its answers to questions about US meat inspection rules. USDA revised its rules after Japan found banned spinal material in a shipment of veal.

''We would be happy to send a team (of USDA officials) when Tokyo requests it,'' said Johanns. US beef sales to Japan have been on hold since Jan. 20.

While most of the large U.S. farm groups support creation of the animal identification system, more than two dozen grassroots groups are working against mandatory participation. They see it as government intrusion into private property and a financial burden that benefits meatpackers and exporters.

''I do see animal ID at some point becoming mandatory,'' said Johanns, but USDA will allow participation to be voluntary in the beginning stages. ''Quite honestly, you want to give the industry some time to prepare.'' Some lawmakers, concerned about mad cow, say USDA should move more rapidly to bring the traceback system into use.

Some 205,000 of the 1 million US livestock producers have asked for an ''premises'' ID number. USDA says it is ready to begin issuing ID number for food animals. The final step would be to report movement of animals, such as from farm to market.

Johanns said USDA was ''literally very close'' to concluding a so-called expanded surveillance system that has tested 650,000 cattle for mad cow since June 2004.

''There will always be a surveillance program,'' he said, but it will test fewer cattle. Surveillance tests, he said, were designed to assess the level of mad cow in a nation and not as a food safety tool.

''If you're looking for food safety, you've got to remove specified risk materials,'' said Johanns, referring to US rules that require meatpacker to remove from the carcasses of older cattle the brains, spinal cords and nervous tissue most at risk of carrying the infective agent for mad cow.

REUTERS SK RAI0627

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